Hackenberg looking to get on track against San Diego State
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) Christian Hackenberg's completed fewer passes for less yards than any three-game span since he arrived at Penn State in 2013. But he's doing more work than ever.
Most of it's happening before the snap.
The junior quarterback changed plays on the fly, used motion and redirected running backs and tight ends to augment protections on over a quarter of Penn State's plays against Rutgers and knows he'll be busy again Saturday against an unpredictable San Diego State defense.
''With that 3-3-5 defense that they run, they like to bring a lot of exotic blitzes,'' Hackenberg said. ''We know they're going to bring something that we haven't seen before.''
There's a chance Hackenberg has seen it, just not in a game.
He's gone deeper into film study as his career has progressed. No longer is Hackenberg sitting for hours watching and reacting. Now, he heads into film sessions with a plan. He's looking for tendencies and nuances and he's been studying the Aztecs' frenetic pre-snap movements all week.
At the same time, Hackenberg is figuring out how to manage his own abilities within an offense that's feeling more natural to him each practice. But it hasn't been easy for the 6-foot-4, 228-pound pocket passer to transition from former coach Bill O'Brien's downfield passing attack to offensive coordinator John Donovan's screen-heavy, quick-throw approach.
His completion percentage through three games dropped from 72 percent in 2013 to 62 percent last season, Hackenberg's first in Donovan's offense. This year, Hackenberg is completing a career-worst 49 percent of his throws.
Heavy rain in two games hasn't helped. Throwing quickly without the luxury of longer drop steps to establish rhythm and footwork has resulted in inaccurate throws from unnatural positions. He's determined to clean that up.
''Christian's got so much ability that he's able to get away with it at times,'' Penn State coach James Franklin said. ''I don't think there is any doubt the more consistent we can get with his footwork, the more effective he's going to be.''
And Hackenberg knows quick passes will help exploit the Aztecs who routinely blitz a safety and linebacker. He'll also have plenty of studying to do at the line, moving his teammates around to account for that pressure.
TALE OF TWO BACKS: Penn State true freshman Saquon Barkley and San Diego State junior D.J. Pumphrey have similar skillsets but enter the game on different trajectories. Barkley turned in 154 of his 195 rushing yards after contact against Rutgers and is averaging over 9 yards per carry. A 1,873-yard rusher last season, Pumphrey is averaging 3.6 yards per carry so far. Both should see heavy workloads at Beaver Stadium.
EXTRA BLOCKERS: Franklin was adamant that his tight ends would be better blockers this season. So far, Kyle Carter, Brent Wilkerson and Mike Gesicki have mostly been used in those roles. Gesicki and Carter have combined to catch six passes and figure to have their hands full as blockers again.
SCOUTING HELP: Hackenberg said he talked to his friend and Cal quarterback Jared Goff about the best way to attack the Aztecs earlier this week. Goff threw three touchdowns in the Golden Bears' 35-7 win on Sept. 12.
SMITH'S STRUGGLES: San Diego State coach Rocky Long said he was ''still surprised'' that quarterback Maxwell Smith is still struggling, completing 47 percent of his passes and missing wide open throws. Smith will have to be better against Penn State, a defense that intercepted Rutgers quarterback Chris Laviano twice and has 13 sacks through the first three weeks.
EAST COAST BLUES: San Diego State's last two visits to the East Coast didn't end well. The Aztecs lost to North Carolina 31-27 last season and fell to Ohio State 42-7 in 2013.